My friends and I drove to Durham from Chapel Hill a few weeks ago, solely focused on eating M Kokko's Korean fried chicken. But one of our friends was vegetarian, and I wondered what she would eat.
On M Kokko's eight-item menu, the vegan curry udon proved to be her only bet. We took our food as takeout, which was an apparent misstep for vegetarian ordering. After a brief tug-of-war with the hostess, who said the restaurant didn't have the correct containers to send the udon noodles as a to-go item, she finally acquiesced.
We sat down on the curb outside and fell like animals onto our chicken wings, slurping and munching and agreeing that M Kokko had the best wings in town, that they were worth the twenty-five-minute drive and the equally long wait after ordering. We eventually took the food to a public table on Corcoran Street. Our vegetarian friend sat at the edge, savoring her bowl much more quietly. I felt a little bad—here we all were, slurping away, laughing at the mess we were making in a happy chicken-induced haze.
"How's your soup," I asked her, out of guilt.
"It's really good," she responded. I was impressed by her commitment to vegetarian ethics in the face of our audibly crisp chicken. We nearly dragged her here, after all. I ate the bite she offered me, not wanting her to feel left out of the free-for-all that was happening at the other end of the table.
It turns out I was the one being left out. The soup was spicy and creamy with chewy and crunchy bursts from tempura-fried vegetables. It had an unctuousness that vegan dishes usually lack.
Like many chefs, M Kokko's chef-owner, Michael Lee, says he never wants to neglect dietary restrictions. Unlike most chefs, he provides a vegan option that is truly as good—if not better—than the other dishes on the menu.
Lee's curry udon noodles are based on the instant curry soups that he and his brother grew up preparing for themselves while their parents worked long shifts at a factory when they first moved to the United States. Japanese curries had become popular in Korea before Lee's family migrated, so instant curry was a familiar, easy dish that the brothers could easily heat up.
"I wanted to take foods that I love, that I want to eat every day, and make them better, more special," Lee says. "I never got tired of those curry flavors. It's still something I eat all the time."
The curry is infused with an intense umami that derives from a base of onions that Lee caramelizes for two hours. Japanese curry typically has a roux base, adding another rich layer to the dish. The udon noodles are thick and chewy, but also light, carrying the soup's flavor without getting lost. They're chewier and more toothsome than a pasta noodle.
Lee hints at plans for an all-noodle restaurant in Durham. "We don't make the udon noodles right now, but we plan to open a noodle shop and they'll all be made in-house."
If his meat noodle dishes are anything like his vegan ones, I'll be there all the time—with all my vegetarian friends.